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Leafs ‘under the gun,’ especially Matthews and Kadri

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Nazem Kadri told reporters that he didn’t apologize to his teammates about the three-game suspension he received for a hit on Tommy Wingels, explaining that he was sticking up for Mitch Marner.

An apology might not be necessary, but the bottom line is that Toronto Maple Leafs fans likely expect a lot from Kadri – not to mention star center Auston Matthews – as this team tries to fight back from down 3-1 in their series against the Boston Bruins.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Letdowns

The Maple Leafs dropped two of three games with Kadri out of the lineup, prompting plenty of “What if?” questions, even if people merely wondered how different things would be if it was just a one-game suspension.

Regardless, when it came to last night’s 3-1 loss in Game 4, Mike Babcock didn’t mince words about Toronto failing to exploit the Bruins’ absence in the form of Patrice Bergeron.

“I’m assuming that he thought he was going to come tonight and dominate the game. That’s what I thought,” Babcock said of Matthews. “That didn’t happen …”

Auston not scoring often

Ultimately, Matthews has been limited to one point (the game-winner in Game 3) through the first four games of this series. That’s a disappointment for the NHL’s biggest jersey seller, especially since he showed nicely during his first playoff series, collecting five points during that memorable first-round bout with the Washington Capitals during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It’s easy to throw Matthews under the bus, and Babcock essentially admits that not enough was there last night.

Still, quite a bit of this comes down to bounces. Matthews has generated more than four shots on goal per game (17 overall) so far in this series, suffering with a Rick Nash-like 5.9 shooting percentage during this postseason. Such numbers tend to balance out over time; note that Matthews scored four goals in six games during that Capitals series on 16 SOG, good for a 25-percent shooting rate that would be unsustainable during an 82-game regular season.

There’s also at least some reason to wonder if Matthews is at least somewhat limited by the injury that cost him 10 games from Feb. 22 until his return to the lineup on March 22. As brilliant as he was (six goals, seven assists for 13 points in nine games), maybe he’s missing a few mph on his fastball against unforgiving competition like Zdeno Chara?

Either way, Matthews (and William Nylander) have struggled while the Bruins’ top-line forwards Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak find ways to feast upon the Maple Leafs’ mistakes.

Kadri has plenty to prove

Expectations will be high for Kadri, too, and his offensive numbers have been modest over a small sample size of playoff appearances.

So far, Kadri has generated two goals and six assists in 14 career playoff games, piling up 35 penalty minutes. At minimum, Toronto would like to see his finishing touch pay off a bit more in the postseason after the agitating center generated 32 goals in each of the past two regular seasons.

Much of that can be filed under “easier said than done,” particularly when Tuukka Rask is on his game.

Under the gun

That said, Babcock believes that players like Matthews and Kadri should “embrace and enjoy” the pressure.

” … No pressure means you have no chance. Go to the Olympic games, if you’ve got no chance for a medal there’s no pressure,” Babcock said during Friday’s press conference.

“Do you want to be that person or the person under the gun? I want to be under the gun. We want to build our program so big that we’re under the gun, we’re supposed to win. Like I said, I talked about those fans, we’ve got an unbelievable fan group. They expect us to be good. We want to be good. Let’s be good.”

Kadri, Matthews, and the Maple Leafs will get their chance to “be good” enough to keep this series alive in Game 5 on Saturday. You can tune in on NBC, with puck drop scheduled for 8 p.m. ET. Click here for the livestream link.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

The Buzzer: Ovechkin is clutch

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Two games on Thursday

Bruins 3, Maple Leafs 1 (Bruins lead series 3-1)

The Boston Bruins continue to show that they can survive – if not thrive – with key players out of the lineup. They don’t get much more “key” than Patrice Bergeron, who was unable to suit up for Game 4. Even so, Tuukka Rask made some crucial saves and the Bruins connected on two 2-on-1 rushes to snag a 3-1 series lead. The Maple Leafs must grapple with a lot of uncomfortable questions as they see their season slip to the brink of elimination.

Capitals 4, Blue Jackets 1 (Series tied 2-2)

This game was all about patterns continuing, or breaking.

Continuing: The road team winning. The away team has won all four contests during this series, so this one returns to Washington with the two teams now tied up 2-2. It’s also another instance of Alex Ovechkin being sneaky-clutch, although many people will disagree because of team results. Washington’s starting to pull away in terms of puck possession during the series, and that continued on Thursday, too.

Breaking: For the first time in the series, the game ended in regulation. It wasn’t all that close, either, as the Caps won 4-1 and were safe even considering one empty-netter.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Three Stars

1. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins – There will be talk of Bergeron, Auston Matthews not being able to score, Mike Babcock’s decisions, and other factors from Game 4. Rask helped to push those discussions to the forefront – rather than talk about which team has the edge if they ended up tied – as he was sharp on Thursday. Rask stopped 31 out of 32 shots, factoring heavily in Boston building a 3-1 series lead against Toronto.

2. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals – After scoring two goals in Game 1, Kuznetsov had been held silent by the Bruins in Games 2 and 3. The Russian center made up for lost time in Game 4, scoring an empty-netter and two assists in that 4-1 win. Both of his assists were primary helpers, while he checked many other boxes by winning more than half of his draws (10 of 18), generating a +3 rating, and firing four shots on goal.

3. Alex Ovechkin, Capitals – Ovechkin fired a shot on Sergei Bobrovsky, which created a rebound opportunity for T.J. Oshie during a Washington power play, a goal that ended up being the game-winner. Ovechkin also scored from the right face-off circle for an important insurance goal. Ovechkin fired five SOG and was a +1 in Game 4.

Factoids

There’s plenty of focus on Bergeron being out and Marchand scoring/agitating, but don’t forget about David Pastrnak‘s brilliance.

Again, Alex Ovechkin is more clutch than people realize. By scoring the 49th playoff goal of his career, Ovechkin tied Henri Richard for 60th in NHL history. You may remember Henri as a) Maurice Richard’s brother and b) the guy who won the Stanley Cup 11 times.

Friday’s games

Philadelphia Flyers at Pittsburgh Penguins, 7 p.m. ET, NBCSN
Minnesota Wild at Winnipeg Jets, 7:30 p.m. ET, USA Network
Colorado Avalanche at Nashville Predators, 9:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Bruins without Bergeron vs. Leafs in Game 4

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The Boston Bruins rolled through much of the regular season despite injuries, even to key players like Patrice Bergeron. The fact that they’re unfortunately experienced playing without Bergeron is probably the only silver lining regarding his late scratch heading into Game 4.

The Bruins announced that Bergeron is day-to-day with what they’re deeming an upper-body injury, so Riley Nash slips into Bergeron’s spot between Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

This stands as an obvious opportunity for Auston Matthews to roam more freely against the Bruins and a chance for the Maple Leafs to tie this series in front of their home fans.

NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty makes a good point that Bergeron missing Game 4 is especially troubling since the Bruins played Game 3 on Monday, gaining an extra off day between contests.

Bergeron generated five assists through the first three games of this series, including four helpers in Game 2. He was limited to 64 regular-season games in 2017-18, falling just short of a point-per-game with 63. Naturally, his all-around game goes beyond goals and assists, so this hurts badly for the Bruins, whether they had some experience playing without him or not.

As of this writing, the two teams are tied up 1-1. Click here for the livestream link.

This news comes not that long after news surfaced that Bergeron’s once again been named a finalist for the Selke.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Top picks from 2016, 2017 unfazed by playoff pressure

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Auston Matthews got a taste of playoff hockey last season. Patrik Laine has been waiting two years for this.

The third pick in the 2016 draft? Well, Pierre-Luc Dubois is taking a surprising star turn in the spotlight of the NHL playoffs, too.

Matthews, Laine, Dubois and 2017 top picks Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick all look unfazed as they handle significant responsibilities in the postseason. All are in top-six forward roles and have combined for five goals and six assists.

”These guys are young guys,” Toronto coach Mike Babcock said after Matthews’ Game 3 winner against Boston was the 20-year-old center’s first point of the series. ”They’re playing against real players and they’re young guys. You’ve got to go through some of these slappings in your life to kind of respond and learn how to respond and do things right.”

These five budding superstars have been doing a lot of things right all season. Matthews’ 34 goals led the Maple Leafs; Laine’s 43 for Winnipeg were second in the NHL; Hischier’s 48 points were second on the Devils; and Patrick’s 30 and gradual improvement earned him a promotion to the Flyers’ second-line center spot.

Dubois was a bit of a surprise pick by Columbus behind Matthews and Laine at the 2016 draft, and he didn’t break into the NHL right away. Dubois wasn’t expected to mature this quickly and doesn’t get the kind of attention as last season’s top finishers for rookie of the year, but he’s used to that by now.

”I’ve always been the guy kind of under the radar,” said Dubois, whose 48 points were third on the Blue Jackets. ”All my life it’s been pretty much like that. I don’t really look to impress other people. I just want to play well. I’ve never been the guy that everybody talked about, so it never really fazed me.”

Dubois most impressively has earned the trust of old-school coach John Tortorella enough to be the Blue Jackets’ No. 1 center at age 19. Tortorella uses Dubois as an example to show older players how to handle situations, an ultimate sign of respect from a Stanley Cup-winning coach who doesn’t hesitate to put him on the ice against opposing stars.

”He accepted it, he excelled,” Tortorella said. ”He has a mental toughness for a 19-year-old kid, to accept that type of responsibility and want more. It’s a different guy. You’ve got to be careful with young kids, but he has showed me tremendous progress and instant mental toughness as I’ve gotten to know him as the season’s gone on.”

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Laine isn’t tracking the stats of the other players in his draft class, but he knows how they are doing. Similarly, Dubois enjoys watching Matthews and Laine while trying not to compare himself to them.

”They’re obviously really great players,” said Dubois, who picked up two assists in his first playoff game. ”I know my game and people that know my game know that we’re all different players. There’s the offensive side of it, there’s the defensive side, there’s everything. Everything’s different about our games.”

Production ties them together with Hischier and Patrick, who also don’t look out of place at all in their first playoffs at 19.

New Jersey coach John Hynes said Hischier has been one of the Devils’ best players, which is the continuation of a season of learning for the first Swiss No. 1 pick.

”I’ve seen every city, every rink and just for me it was a lot of experience this year, and guys helped me a lot,” said Hischier, who scored in Game 2 against Tampa Bay and played over 17 minutes in the Devils’ Game 3 win. ”Just all around I think I grew as a person and as a hockey player.”

Patrick wasn’t putting up a lot of points in the first half of the season but still felt he was playing well. Philadelphia coach Dave Hakstol felt good enough about Patrick’s game that he promoted him and has reaped the benefits for the past couple of months and in the first round against Pittsburgh.

”Obviously I’m more confident in my game,” Patrick said. ”It’s nice for the confidence. I think my worked my way up and earned that spot. I think it’s easier to get into games and get in the flow of it more playing a little more.”

Ice time isn’t a problem for Matthews and Laine, who are key drivers of play for the Leafs and Jets. Toronto finally got going against the Bruins in large part because of Matthews, who said he felt an earthquake in his feet when he scored in Game 3 and let out a scream to match.

After Laine scored the tying goal in Game 1 against Minnesota in what became the Jets franchise’s first playoff victory, he motioned to fans for cheers before jumping into the glass. The Finnish winger is used to scoring goals – and a lot of them – but in the playoffs it’s even more special.

”It was maybe a little bit nicer,” Laine said. ”I was saving my goals and celebrations for the playoffs. Now I can celly (celebrate) a little bit harder.”

AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell in St. Paul, Minnesota, contributed.

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

Which team is most likely to come back from 2-1 deficit?

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We’re midway through the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and although the Vegas Golden Knights have already punched their ticket to the second round, there are still other spots that are up for grabs.

The Anaheim Ducks and Minnesota Wild are on the brink of elimination. That’s not to say that they can’t overcome their current deficits, but they have a steep hill to climb. So let’s look at the teams that are down 2-1 in their respective series.

The Devils, Maple Leafs, Flyers, Capitals and Avalanche are all in that predicament. Every one of those teams, except Philadelphia, came away with a huge Game 3 victory, so there’s a sense of optimism surrounding those clubs. They aren’t in an ideal spot, but they aren’t dead either.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Who has the best chance of coming back to win the series? Let’s rank them from least likely to most likely.

• New Jersey Devils

Taylor Hall was sensational in New Jersey’s Game 3 victory, as he recorded a goal and two primary assists. Hall has played at least 20 minutes in each of the first three games of the series. He’s a matchup problem for any of Tampa’s skaters, but getting Brayden Point on the ice against him is clearly the preference for head coach Jon Cooper. But will Devils bench boss John Hynes be able to get the desired matchups when the series shifts back to Tampa? Hall will produce no matter what, but there’s no denying that winning on the road and winning at home are two different things, especially for a team with quite a few youngsters.

The wild card in all of this is Cory Schneider, who picked up his first win of 2018 in Game 3. Schneider looked as confident as he’s looked in quite some time, so stealing a game or two would go a long way in helping New Jersey come back. Again, that might be a lot to ask from a guy that lost his starting job to Keith Kinkaid for a few weeks.

“Still a lot of work to go. One win is a starting points, so we have to make sure we come back with the same intensity (Wednesday) night,” Schneider said, per NJ.com. “But yeah, 2-1 and 3-0 are a big difference. It was an important game for us to win just to get into the series and make it a series. Hopefully we can continue to make it more difficult as it goes on here.”

It’ll also be interesting to see how the bad blood at the end of Game 3 affects this series. Can the Devils use Mikhail Sergachev‘s hit on Blake Coleman as motivation? Does the rough stuff help Tampa Bay focus on getting back to business? There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered heading into Game 4.

• Philadelphia Flyers

The Flyers have been overwhelmed by the Penguins in two of the first three games, but here they are trailing to just one game heading into Game 4. Discipline has been a big problem for them through three contests. Even in the game that they won, they still took silly penalties, but managed to kill them off. If that doesn’t change, this series will be over faster than you can say “Philly cheese steak with no onions and extra cheese whiz”.

As if the 2-1 deficit to the Penguins wasn’t enough, it now looks like they might be without Sean Couturier, who was injured during a collision in practice with Radko Gudas. Missing him for any amount of time would be a huge loss for the Flyers.

Whether Couturier plays or not, Philadelphia will need more from Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek.

“There’s a lot of guys in here that can pick up slack, guys that are itching to get more time too,” Flyers goalie Brian Elliott said, per NHL.com. “If he’s not available, if he is available, I think our guys are ready for that.”

The Flyers proved that they could beat the Penguins, now they just have to show that they can do it three more times.

• Colorado Avalanche

The Avs have surprisingly dominated the opening period of each of these first three games. Unfortunately for them, they only have one win to show for it, but they can pull positives from the fact that they weren’t skated out of the building on the road against the Presidents’ Trophy winners.

Nathan MacKinnon and Hall are in similar situations, meaning that they’ll have to shoulder most of the offensive burden, but the Avs forward definitely has more help up front. Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog can also be difference-makers for Colorado.

You have to wonder how injuries have affected this series. How much do things change if Colorado has a healthy Erik Johnson, Samuel Girard and Semyon Varlamov. Missing Varlamov seems to be the biggest loss, as Jonathan Bernier has had his share of tough moments in the series. Is he capable of stealing a game in Nashville? That’s what it’s going to take for Colorado to move on to the second round.

Nothing is impossible, but it seems like the Avs are a year away from taking the next step. Overcoming this 2-1 deficit would be a huge surprise.

• Toronto Maple Leafs

The Leafs are an interesting case. They played a relatively strong home game in Game 3, as they managed to keep the Bruins’ top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak off the scoresheet. The thing is, they haven’t looked too good on Boston ice, where the desired matchups are a lot harder to come by. Deadline acquisition Tomas Plekanec along with Morgan Rielly and Ron Hainsey did what they had to do to keep that line in check in Game 3. Can they do it again? Even at home, that’s not a sure thing.

Boston’s first line had their share of opportunities, especially when the Bruins were pressing in the third period. You just get the feeling like the Leafs will have to do an impeccable job defensively and they’ll have to pray that the opposing trio doesn’t bury one, or two, or three.

Goalie Frederik Andersen is also an interesting case. He’s let in some bad goals during this series, including in Game 3, but he’s also managed to come up with some impressive saves at times. The Leafs are going to need a little more consistency from their number one netminder, or this thing could get away from them in a hurry.

And, of course, Toronto has to hope that Auston Matthews‘ game-winning goal in Game 3 will help give him the spark he needs to continue producing regularly. Monday’s goal was his first point of the playoffs.

“People find it hard to believe, but it’s easy to lose your confidence very quickly at playoff time,” head coach Mike Babcock said, per the Toronto Sun. “I think we’re in a great spot to get it back, and I really felt it helped Freddie (Monday) night, it helped Auston (Monday) night. A lot of guys are feeling better about themselves.”

•Washington Capitals

This is arguably the most interesting one of the lot. Sure, they’re the most likely team to come back from a 2-1 deficit, but they could easily be down 3-0 if Lars Eller doesn’t get that lucky bounce in double overtime on Tuesday night.

The Capitals have all the firepower they need to make a deep run, they just haven’t ever been able to do it. As the Caps have found out, the Blue Jackets are no joke, so they’ll have to be at their best to advance to the second round. Bowing out in the first round would probably bring about more changes in Washington, so they’ve got to come through if they want to stick together going forward.

Braden Holtby made some big saves during Game 3, but he also let in an incredibly weak goal to Pierre-Luc Dubois to tie the game at one in the second period. Holtby has been off for most of the year, but if there was ever a time for him to emerge as a hero, it’s right now.

“It puts us right back in the series,” Holtby said, per NHL.com. “I thought we held our composure really well in the overtimes. We didn’t cheat. We stuck to our systems and got a gritty goal to win it. It’s a good sign.”

Of the five teams trailing 2-1, there’s no denying that the Capitals are the most talented team. On the flip side, they also have the most playoff baggage of all the teams, too. It’ll be interesting to see if they can overcome these mental hurdles, but that lucky bounce in OT may have saved their season.

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Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.